How can one find peace in isolation? When the government advised that we, “shelter in place,” it’s no surprise such messaging comes with increased anxiety and mounting paranoia. Learning to find comfort when we’ve been instructed to keep a distance from one another is becoming increasingly important as the news of Covid 19 spreads.
Seeking Inspiration from Literature
Attaining harmony when in seclusion is no small feat. But as depicted in the book, One Man’s Wilderness, Dick Proenneke did just that, and what so many Americans are now struggling to come to terms with. The memoir is a simple account of the day-to-day explorations and activities Dick carried out alone, and the constant chain of natural events that kept him company. From Proenneke’s journals, and with firsthand knowledge of his subject and the setting, Sam Keith wove a tribute to a man who carved his masterpiece out of the last frontier.
Here is an excerpt from the book that has inspired so many to discover that there can be comfort in solitude.
Chapter One: Going In
It was good to be back in the wilderness again where everything seems at peace. I was alone. It was a great feeling—a stirring feeling. Free once more to plan and do as I pleased. Beyond was all around me. The dream was a dream no longer.
I suppose I was here because this was something I had to do. Not just dream about it but do it. I suppose, too, I was here to test myself, not that I had never done it before, but this time it was to be a more thorough and lasting examination.
What was I capable of that I didn’t know yet? What about my limits? Could I truly enjoy my own company for an entire year? Was I equal to everything this wild land could throw at me? I had seen its moods in late spring, summer, and early fall, but what about winter? Would I love the isolation then, with its bone-stabbing cold, its brooding ghostly silence, its forced confinement? At age fifty-one I intended to find out.
My mind was swarming with the how and when of projects. Could I really build the cabin with just hand tools to the standards I had set in my mind? The furniture, the doors, the windows—what was the best way to produce the needed boards? Would the tin gas cans serve as I hoped they would? Was the fireplace too ambitious a project? The cabin had to be ready before summer’s end, but the cache up on its poles? Surely that must wait until next spring. There were priorities to establish and deadlines to meet. I would need the extra daylight the summer would bring.
The most exciting part of the whole adventure was putting self-reliance on trial. I did not intend to break any laws. No meat would be harvested until hunting season. Until then fish would be a mainstay of my diet, along with berries and wild greens. I would plant a small garden more out of curiosity than actual need. Babe would supply those extras that provide a little luxury to daily fare. He would be my one contact with that other world beyond the range.
I looked around at the wind-blasted peaks and the swirls of mist moving past them. It was hard to take my eyes away. I had been up on some of them, and I would be up there again. There was something different to see each time, and something different from each one. All those streamlets to explore and all those tracks to follow through the glare of the high basins and over the saddles. Where did they lead? What was beyond? What stories were written in the snow?
I watched an eagle turn slowly and fall away, quick-sliding across the dark stands of spruce that marched in uneven ranks up the slopes. His piercing cry came back on the wind. I thought of the man at his desk staring down from a city window at the ant colony streets below, the man toiling beside the thudding and rumbling of machinery, the man commuting to his job the same way at the same time each morning, staring at but not seeing the poles and the wires and the dirty buildings flashing past. Perhaps each man had his moment during the day when his vision came, a vision not unlike the one before me.
A strange possessiveness seemed to surge through me. I had no right to call this big country mine, yet I felt it was.
I examined my heap of gear on the gravel. There were 150 pounds to be backpacked along the connecting stream and the upper shoreline to Spike’s cabin. Many times I had gone over in my mind what to take. I knew what was available in the cabin but didn’t want to use any more of Spike’s gear or supplies than I had to. Things were valuable out here and hard to replace. Spread before me were the essentials. I organized the array into three loads.
I was sure I could pack two loads today, but just in case it was only one, I included in the first trip a .30-06 converted Army Springfield, a box of cartridges, a .357 magnum pistol with cartridge belt and holster, the packboard, the camera gear (8mm movie and 35mm reflex), cartons of film, the foodstuffs (oatmeal, powdered milk, flour, salt, pepper, sugar, honey, rice, onions, baking soda, dehydrated potatoes, dried fruit, a few tins of butter, half a slab of bacon), and a jar of Mary Alsworth’s ageless sourdough starter.
The second pile consisted of binoculars, spotting scope, tripod, a double-bitted axe, fishing gear, a sleeping bag, packages of seeds, A Field Guide to Western Birds, my ten-inch pack, and the clothing. More bulk than weight.
The third pile held the hand tools such as wood augers, files, chisels, drawknife, saws, saw set, honing stone, vise grips, screwdrivers, adze, plumb bob and line, string level, square, chalk, chalk line, and carpenter pencils; a galvanized pail containing such things as masking tape, nails, sheet metal screws, haywire, clothesline, needles and thread, wooden matches, a magnifying glass, and various repair items; a bag of plaster of Paris; and some oakum.
Over the last two piles I spread the tarp and weighted its edges with boulders. Then I shouldered the first load, buckled on the .357, slung up the rifle and went off, swishing through the buckbrush with the enthusiasm of a Boy Scout setting out on his first hike.
The stream tinkled as it moved past its ice chimes. I saw an arctic tern dipping its way along the open place where the stream poured from beneath the ice. A wren-type bird kept flushing and flitting daintily ahead of me. His tiny body had a yellowish green cast to it, but he wouldn’t sit still long enough for me to catch a good field mark.
A thin film of ice covered yesterday’s open water between the edge of the lake ice and the shore. There had been a dip in the temperature last night. It was tricky going as I picked my way with quick steps over the patches of snow and ice and through stretches of great boulders and loose gravel. The pull of the packboard straps felt comfortable against my woolen shirt, and I could feel the warmth of the spring sun on my face.
I wondered if at that moment there was anyone in the world as free and happy.
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